Weekly Word Watch: sequelae, iskwew, and Nagini
This week’s Word Watch features three very different words, but they do have one thing in common. They all come from foreign languages: Latin, Cree, and Sanskrit.
On Thursday, we heard the wrenching testimony of Christine Blasey Ford before the US Senate about her accusation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in the 1980s. Her words were extremely powerful – in more ways than one.
Asked about her strongest memory of the alleged assault, Ford drew on her work as a professor and researcher of psychology by stating, movingly and memorably: ‘Indelible in the hippocampus is… the uproarious laughter’ of Kavanaugh and a fellow attacker she remembers. Indelible means ‘not able to be removed or forgotten’ and uproarious is ‘characterized by or provoking loud noise’. The hippocampus is in the middle of the brain and plays a major role in memory. It means ‘horse-sea monster’ in Greek, for the structure’s likeness to a seahorse.
Then, answering a question on the effects of the alleged assault, Ford noted the episode’s sequelae. A sequela, which can be pronounced with the stress on the first or second syllable, is a medical term for ‘a condition which is the consequence of a previous disease or injury’, including trauma. One of the pathological aftereffects that Ford cited, for example, was claustrophobia, the ‘fear of confined places’.
The plural form of sequela, a word recorded by the 18th century, is sequelae, as in its root language, Latin. Many pronounce the final -ae to rhyme with I. Etymologically, we can understand sequela in terms of a cognate, sequel, literally a ‘thing that follows’. Another cognate to sequela appears in the very definition of the word: consequence.
This week, Teara Fraser made history as the first indigenous woman in Canada to start an airline. She also provided us a welcome education in the Cree language by naming her airline, with aptness and empowerment, Iskwew Air. Roughly pronounced like iss-kwey-oo, iskwew (or iskwêw) means ‘woman’ in Cree, which renders it as ᐃᐢᑫᐧᐤ in Cree syllabics.
Iskwew Air isn’t the first business Fraser built, and nor is it the first time she’s found inspiration in the Cree language. In the early 2010s, Fraser formed an aerial imagery company, Kîsik (ᑭᓯᐠ), which means ‘sky’ and is pronounced like key-sick.
Fraser is Métis, aboriginal peoples of mixed First Nations (including Cree) and Euro-American descent in Canada. With Iskwew Air, she aims to service remote indigenous communities and raise their profile in Canadian tourism. As her planes take flight, Fraser has also done one thing for certain: She’s raised the profile of women (or iskwêwak) – and the Cree language – in aviation, business, and culture.
In the Harry Potter universe, Nagini is the sinister snake sidekick to Lord Voldemort. The snake, and its author J.K. Rowling, turned some heads after a trailer for the latest Fantastic Beasts film revealed Nagini was originally a woman, with South Korean actor Claudia Kim in the role.
Many criticized Rowling for the choice, finding it misogynist and racist to cast an Asian woman as a serpent subject to a villain. Rowling defended the decision on Twitter, writing that Nagini was inspired by Nagas, human-snake deities she rooted in Indonesian mythology. Popular Indian author Amish Tripathi, however, corrected Rowling’s claim, noting that Nagas originated in India, and that the name derives from Sanskrit, before spreading to Indonesia.
Actually @jk_rowling the Naga mythology emerged from India. It travelled to Indonesia with the Indic/Hindu empires that emerged there in the early Common Era, with the influence of Indian traders and Rishis/Rishikas who travelled there. Nagin is a Sanskrit language word. https://t.co/cXHSlDD7Kc
— Amish Tripathi (@authoramish) September 26, 2018
While he may come across as a bit mythsplainy, shall we say, Tripathi does know a thing or two about Nagas, as he wrote a best-selling novel in 2011 called The Secret of the Nagas. And the word indeed comes from the Sanskrit nāga (नाग), or ‘cobra’. Nāgini is a feminine form, hence the name of Rowling’s character.
Some etymologists suppose the Sanskrit nāga could be connected to English’s own word for the creature, snake. Nāga ultimately yields the name of a genus of cobras, Naja, and the Indian cobra is technically called Naja naja. A more general word for snake in Sanskrit is sarpa (सर्प), which etymologists do connect to the English serpent (via Latin) and herpetology (via Greek).